Reading through President Reagan's array of arguments for spending more American dollars to support the existing regime in El Salvador set me to thinking how much easier it was to make foreign policy decisions back in the days of World War II.
There was no serious question then about the merits of the case for United States intervention in that war.
Nazism was evil. So, too, was Japanese imperialism, although it did not involve the same racist element so prominent in Nazism. Nazism was both imperialist and racist. It was also ruthless. So, too, was the Japanese reach for dominion over most of Asia. Anyone could with a clear conscience decide to stand up and resist the reach of those two forces for world domination.
Washington is tied up in knots right now over whether to send more money and more US military instructors to the jungles of Central America. The President has decided to do so and has so recommended to the Congress. Congress is unhappy about either doing or not doing what the President proposes.
The trouble is that there is no clear line between right and wrong or good and evil in Central America.
El Salvador is a sorry place indeed. It is run by a dominant political group which can only be called a tyrannous oligarchy. Its leaders treat people they dislike or distrust as brutally as the Nazis ever did. Their victims are numbered in the thousands. They include several Americans, including Roman Catholic nuns. Their killer squads are notorious for their brutality and lack of discrimination.
But when the population of El Salvador went to the polls a year ago the verdict was unmistakable. An impressive majority voted for the existing regime, no matter how brutal and ruthless.
This is clearly not a case where the majority of the population would prefer a rebel victory. The people had a chance to speak. The rebels did their best to discourage voting. The majority voted. The result does not prove that the mass of the people likes the condition it has. But there was no basis for concluding that the mass would prefer to be ruled by the rebels.
Perhaps what the voters were really saying at those elections in El Salvador a year ago is that they yearned for peace and order and that they assumed it could come more quickly by a rebel defeat than through a long civil war. At that time the government forces controlled most of the country.
Perhaps the voting would run differently now that the rebels have proved that they can keep the field and increase both their military effectiveness and their control of territory.
The majority probably wish a plague on both sides and want only to be allowed to live in peace.
But they did not vote for the other side a year ago and there is today no solid reason to believe that they would actually be better off if the rebels could win.
Are the Cubans better off under Fidel Castro than they were before Castro? Are the Nicaraguans better off now than they were under the previous Somoza dictatorship (also a tyranny)?
The answers are not easy or clear-cut. The new regime in Nicaragua is a tyranny; different in kind and perhaps less quick to kill than were Somoza's bullies, but still a tyranny. Pope John Paul II found the atmosphere in Nicaragua uncongenial to freedom and religion when he visited it last week. He was treated as discourteously there as he was later when he visited right-wing Guatemala.
The rightist oligarchies which President Reagan wants to support are not examples of democracy and do not pay attention to human rights. But neither democracy nor respect for human rights would follow if the rebels won in El Salvador or Guatemala. For the plain people of those countries the unhappy choice is between a right-wing or left-wing tyranny.
The US is not supporting the rightist regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala in order to advance democracy or human rights. It is supporting them because it is afraid that if the rebels get control those rebels will revolve in the Soviet political and military orbit. The President states a further fear that this could mean Soviet bases compromising the ability of the US to keep open its lines of supply and communication to its allies in Europe and the Far East.
Congress will probably go along with the President reluctantly for the military reason. But it would be so much pleasanter and easier for the Congress and for others if only the issues were clear and clean as they were in World War II.